(Editorial reposted with permission from the Daily Press in Hampton Roads)
Brian Davison, a parent in Loudoun County, may be a bit of a gadfly. But he's on point with his insistence that parents have more information about the performance of their public schools.
He filed dozens of requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act seeking access to data collected as part of the commonwealth's Standards of Learning testing program. His efforts rebuffed, Mr. Davison availed himself of the courts, filing suit for the records.
The specific information he sought is student-growth percentiles, a measure the Virginia Department of Education began collecting in 2011. It helps demonstrate "the progress a student has made relative to the progress of students whose achievement was similar on previous assessments," according to the DOE.
Though some in the education establishment believe the SGP data to be unreliable and a poor quantitative measure, it can be used to compile class-by-class scores that help determine the relative effectiveness of individual teachers.
Mr. Davison argues those class-by-class measures are valuable and should be public. But the possibility that this SGP data could single out teachers for ridicule has inspired some fervent opposition.
Responding to Mr. Davison's suit, members of the Loudoun County School Board argued that the data would be misinterpreted if it was released, basically arguing that we citizens are too stupid to understand the numbers.
A spokeswoman from the National Council on Teacher Quality told the Washington Post that releasing the information would be an invasion of privacy, even though these are public employees receiving taxpayer-funded salaries.
And, naturally, the Virginia Education Association, what amounts to a teachers union in this right-to-work state, strenuously objected to singling out under-performing teachers, though schools routinely do the same of students and everyone does the same of schools.
We're sympathetic to some of those arguments. Teaching is a difficult profession without the additional scrutiny. And, more than most, we recognize that nobody enjoys having their poor performance chronicled in the media.
But SGP data may help identify those teachers who are doing laudable work in difficult conditions. That could benefit the whole of public education in Virginia, since such achievement should be help up and celebrated.
In 2013, perhaps anticipating the likelihood that the public might want to see the records it pays for, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law keeping SGP records from release.
But Virginia wouldn't be a trailblazer were it to make this data available. Florida, New York and Michigan give parents access to teacher evaluations. Arkansas and Indiana report the average performance of teachers. A Los Angeles Times lawsuit successfully pried SGP records from California public officials and published them in 2010.
But for us, the equation is simple: The data in question is public information, collected by a government department through a testing program paid for by citizens. It's ludicrous to think that information can or should be shielded from public view.
Yet thanks to our toothless and inept Freedom of Information Act, there are plenty of exemptions that keep records such as this out of citizen hands. And, if the VEA has its way, lawmakers could amend FOIA to specifically restrict the data from release.
At the recent meeting of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council, the group conducting a three-year review of the law, representatives of the teachers union petitioned for even more exemptions for information about how well teachers and schools do their job. The council's recommendation of such provisions would be a mistake.
Virginia residents pour billions into the public schools each year. Local taxpayers, such as those in Newport News and Hampton, spend millions more on education.
It's fair to ask about the return we're receiving on that massive annual investment. And data collected through statewide evaluative testing measures can help provide a more accurate picture of that.